Leaders: Poor show from rivals means SNP will win today

Scottish Labour Party leader Kezia Dugdale with Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA
Scottish Labour Party leader Kezia Dugdale with Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA
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LABOUR failure to accept why electorate abandoned party and Tory readiness to accept failure means Sturgeon’s pack will romp home

Today the country goes to the polls in an election that will decide a Holyrood Parliament that will see in its lifetime more changes in the tax powers it has to wield and probably a change in what Scottish politics is about.

Ironically, it has been something of a quiet election campaign – increasingly bizarre picture stunts by some party leaders notwithstanding – but there are probably good reasons for that.

The first is that yet again, for the second time in as many years, Scots are about to have a referendum on an issue that could see a huge change in all of our lives, and this time it could result in a turning point shift in the history of our continent. There can be no doubt that the big question this summer is about Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. It also carries the potential spin-off for voters in Scotland that if the UK as a whole votes to leave the EU but Scots vote to stay in, the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum will appear. That does indeed concentrate the mind.

But another reason the Holyrood elections have failed to light the blue touchpaper on high streets and doorsteps is the fact that the SNP have it in the bag, barring the biggest upset ever in Scottish politics and that is now a high bar given just how much change the political landscape has undergone in recent years. The only real question for the SNP is whether they will get an outright majority.

In many ways that defies received political wisdom. The SNP have been in power now for nine years and usually a party in power that long has managed to alienate or antagonise the electorate to the extent that a change in government is almost inevitable.

But not the SNP.

And it is not as if they do not have their policy problems. Their competent hand on the tiller has seen some wobbles in recent times. The Scottish economy has not been performing well, lagging behind the rest of the UK. A large part of this is the downturn in oil prices which is of course a global contraction governments can do little about, but that does not usually mean the electorate let incumbents off with it.

The creation of Police Scotland has also been a difficulty for the government, but again, that fault does not entirely lie with them. Yes there have been obvious operational failures, like the tragic deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell after their car left the M9, but the broader difficulties with the new police force were in large part down to the singular management style of the then chief constable Sir Stephen House. There can be little doubt that given the nature of crime and policing some amalgamation was definitely the way to go.

But the SNP do have problems with health targets, and education, and the continuing freeze on council tax is having a corrosive effect on local authorities, where jobs are being shed on a large scale. Those issues would normally be enough to force a far closer contest at the very least.

The fact that they have not lies with the failure of Labour. They failed to get to grips with why they were losing the electorate and were navel-gazing while their bewildered core voters wandered into the welcoming arms of the SNP.

But even in the duration of this campaign Kezia Dugdale has offered little to woo those voters back – it seems the social justice ground is still held by the SNP and her proposed old-Labour tax increase of a 50p top rate of tax on the richest 1 per cent to invest in education and other public services will have little effect. What little effect it might have will be more than countered by her admission that it was “not inconceivable” that she would back independence in the event of Brexit and by allowing her MSPs to campaign for independence in the event of another referendum. Thus any Labour supporters in favour of keeping the Union – and that will not be an insignificant number – could feel that the only place they can go to is the Tories.

The Conservatives – or more precisely, leader Ruth Davidson – will benefit from that as well as benefitting from her clear offer of fighting for the Union and no change in Scottish taxes. Her realism in aiming for second place should be recognised but it is not an inspirational rallying call, given that her ability – anyone’s ability – to be an effective opposition could be severely curtailed.

There are benefits and drawbacks to one party holding a majority in Holyrood. Having a majority means it is possible to have strong government, even radical government, which makes big changes in policies and cultures possible. But it also makes bad government more likely, particularly in a parliament like Holyrood where the voting system was designed not to allow a majority and the checks and balances on government power were supposed to come in committees. All in all, common sense tells us that for a mature democracy checks and balances on power are better than untrammelled power.

So today the second vote becomes very important, which is why there have been so many campaigns around it. It seems best to use it to try and get those checks and balances.

The sea change in Scottish politics that will emerge in the life of this parliament, Brexit and indyref2 aside, will be the change in the government’s use of tax-raising powers and the electorate’s verdict when it comes again to the ballot box. This could fundamentally change the way voters pick parties.